Gordon’s Belated Top 5 of 2014
Sheer joy. Sheer sick, twisted joy is the only way I can describe my experience with Red Barrels Studio’s ‘Outlast’. Not since the days of ‘Resident Evil 2’ has the experience of bringing a friend over to partake in the horror (and frequently laugh at my expense during one of my many high-pitched screams…) been so much fun. The mixture of almost relentless scares and measured pacing – coupled with the most atmospherically enjoyable horror setting in recent memory – helped define it as one of the year’s standouts and one that reminded me just how much fun horror could be.
There’s always been something about the horror genre I can’t resist. Be it a film, play, book or game, I always feel compelled to seek out the new ways in which the genre can terrify me. When it comes to horror games the visceral thrill is unrivalled, as is that euphoric sense of pride upon completing them. Especially with a game like ‘Outlast’, that sees you taking on a veritable army of insane inmates armed only with a video camera. For someone who is a renowned coward when tackling these games (honest to God, I was genuinely hiding under a duvet while playing ‘P.T.’! UNDER THE GODDAMN DUVET! How the hell did I expect to play the damn thing? I couldn’t even see the TV!?!) facing your fears and triumphing is one of the most cathartic and rewarding experiences in gaming.
That feeling of triumph is something that I really want to touch on as I feel it is unique to horror. Think about how many games you get through in a single year. How many see you just shrugging your shoulders and saying, “That was alright, I guess…” once the credits roll? How many times were those same games just forgotten five minutes later. Now cast your mind back to the last horror game you completed and remember that feeling of triumph. Knowing that you’d overcome almost impossible odds and faced off against monsters and nightmarish worlds that, only moments earlier, had you so afraid that just looking around a corner seemed impossible. Once you’ve tasted that it’s hard to feel satisfied playing anything else.
What made it all the more noteworthy was its inclusion in the PlayStation Plus program, making the whole experience free as well. When a game provides you with some of the most fun you’ve had in years AND is completely free, well then it would have to be a fairly incompetent horror game to not land squarely on my ‘Top 5 of the Year’ list – and make no mistake; at its best, the fear is almost suffocating.
4. METAL GEAR SOLID V: GROUND ZEROES
Is it a game? Is it a demo? It’s neither. This is ‘Metal Gear Solid’ reborn. I should probably state that the original ‘Metal Gear Solid’ on Playstation is pretty much my favourite game of all time. Blowing my mind with its cinematic presentation, iconic characters, labyrinth-like plot and jaw-dropping sequences (so full of inspired imagination). It simultaneously secured my eternal love for the series and made me a lifelong fan of its creator, Hideo Kojima. Unlike other games out this year, ‘Ground Zeroes’ had a lot of negative press leading up to its release to contend with. Was it all just a glorified demo? Could it really be completed in just a handful of minutes? Yet the fact that the game has still made it onto so many ‘Games of the Year’ lists proves once again that the key to the franchise’s long history is that Kojima, like Snake himself, is a master of adapting.
One of the arguments made as to why the gaming industry in Japan has arguably (or unarguably according to a large group) been eclipsed by the west is down to its insular nature. It’s insistence to follow out-dated mechanics and refusal to borrow/blatantly steal the best ideas from the west has seen it fall further and further behind the best games from the studio system and independent sector. As someone that grew up in awe of the ‘Final Fantasy’ games ever since I got my copy of ‘Final Fantasy VII’ from Santa (#Believe), it’s become truly sad to see the recent titles for such a seminal series be received with such apathy. Yet under Kojima’s stewardship ‘Metal Gear Solid’ continues to grow in ambition and looks set to deliver its definitive title (hopefully) this year.
A major reason for this is Kojima’s ability to acknowledge the quality of work done outside Japan. A quick look on his Twitter feed shows someone almost depressed at the quality of titles being produced by Naughty Dog, Rockstar Games and Bethesda. Even now he’s not above or too embarrassed to ‘borrow’ the best gameplay techniques from other games in order to make a smoother experience. It’s also led to his most restrained game in years. Gone are the countless hours of cut-scenes and codec conversations (now transposed over actual gameplay), resulting in a more streamlined experience so now nothing takes away from the gameplay. All this results in a game that makes it hard for even die-hard fans of ‘Metal Gear Solid’ to go back to some of the earlier classics. From its smooth 60 frames-per-second (something that I’d always thought I’d never even notice, although here, it gives the game a sense of weight and speed) to its ability to offer the player a wealth of options when tackling each scenario. There’s simply so much to do and so many ways in which to do it that you are constantly being surprised.
It’s the attention to detail and care that is put into every facet of the game that keeps you coming back, though. Something that Kojima is famous for – as is his tendency to address uncomfortable and controversial issues. That a game with such a high-profile can offer such a blatantly unflattering depiction of the U.S. is extraordinary. Touching on such topics as Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of prisoners of war, it constantly shocks you – not just with its swift and brutal violence but with its ideas too.
Not bad for what was meant to be a demo, huh?
3. ALIEN ISOLATION
Cold. Relentless. Merciless. What Creative Assembly have produced with ‘Isolation’ is quite possibly the most authentic ‘Alien’ gaming experience I have ever witnessed and perfectly encapsulates everything that makes the xenomorph such a horrifying creation. Coupling an exciting and genuinely surprising story with a stellar central performance and the most strikingly realised game world since ‘Bioshock’, ‘Isolation’ proves worthy of comparison with Ridley Scott’s classic.
Whether it’s the ping of the motion tracker or the almost stomach-churning hiss from the titular character; everything that resonated with audiences for generations is just as unsettling now as it was all those years ago. Mirroring one of the key strengths of the iconic original, Creative Assembly nail the slow-burning tension that endures long before the creature makes its memorable first appearance. In fact, it’s possible to go a full hour before settings eyes on it – a sign of Creative Assembly’s confidence in their storytelling – although that’s not to say you won’t be seeing evidence of its handiwork before then. Something that only adds to the unnerving opening sequences as the player is left to fear what they know is coming while the character of Ripley, a superb vocal performance by Andrea Deck – conveying abject terror laced with an inner steel that would make her character’s mother proud – is drawn ever-further into the abyss of the Sevastopol.
When Creative Assembly announced that, much like the original film, you would only be faced with a single solitary alien there seemed to be a slight sense of disappointment being conveyed by certain groups. I was always slightly puzzled by this complaint as surely nothing would dilute the horror experience faster than being confronted by wave after wave of aliens. The fact that the last ‘Alien’ game to try that approach was ‘Colonial Marines’ (the gaming equivalent of James Cameron kicking you in the groin then charging you £40 for the honour…) and it made you wonder why so many had forgotten how simple the original’s set-up was. To have first-hand experience of watching helplessly as, one by one, the last remaining crew members are taken out, all while knowing, deep in your bones, that soon only you will remain, results in a level of fear that rivals anything in this medium. The resulting cat-and-mouse duel sees Creative Assembly absolutely fulfil the promise of that hellish scenario. In fact, the biggest compliment I can give the game is that there were several moments where I genuinely felt as though I were IN an ‘Alien’ movie. Moments that so vividly recalled the horror from the cinematic classic that it had me on the edge of my seat; almost flinging the controller across the room in fright.
Yet it’s a punishing game. Almost off-puttingly so. In an era of lowered difficulty levels and frequent checkpoints (if this ‘Top 5′ list were a modern game it would have saved your progress twenty times already…), Creative Assembly have shown real bravery in embracing such old-fashioned practices – the main one being manual save-points. Knowing that one false move can result in the last twenty minutes of of gameplay being wiped out creates some unbearably tense moments.
Another legitimate issue is its inability to know when to end. Granted the final moments are full of near-death encounters and nerve-shredding tension but its the previous umpteen near-death and nerve-shredding encounters that threaten to rob the game of its forward momentum in its closing sequnces. Poor ol’ Amanda starts to get thrown about so much you wonder if the xenomorph is going to start feeling sorry for her and bring her slippers and a hot chocolate.
Yet as tough and intimidating as this might all sound, I would strongly recommend this for anyone searching for titles that provoke a visceral response. Made by a company that found a perfect balance between being both slavishly faithful to the source material while not afraid to strike out creatively in new areas (the frankly disturbing Working Joe’s will not soon be forgotten…) it finally sees the film and character treated with the respect it deserves. The famous tagline for the original film stated that “In space no one can hear you scream”. They lied. With ‘Alien Isolation’, everyone will hear you scream…
2. THE EVIL WITHIN
Well what do we have here? It couldn’t possibly be the most riotously entertaining game of the year, could it? It was always going to take the proverbial train wreck of a game for me not be fall madly in love with the latest Shinji Mikami effort and the father of survival horror did not disappoint. It may not exactly reinvent the genre and leave a lasting legacy like ‘Resident Evil 4’, but much in the same way that Sam Raimi’s ‘Drag Me to Hell’ saw a past master invigorated by returning to the genre of some of his greatest work, ‘The Evil Within’ sees Mikami similarly inspired.
I already wrote about my excitement about Mikami’s latest earlier in the year and much of what I enjoyed about ‘The Evil Within’ was how it felt like a warm, comforting blanket (that just happened to ooze puss and gore…) for a time in gaming long gone. Back were the hokey characters, baffling attempts at humour and, most importantly, dialogue written by someone that should simultaneously be fired while also having a national parade thrown in his/her honour. Yet what also returned was the thick atmosphere and stunningly designed nightmarish environments and monsters. Much in the way that ‘Outlast’ made you feel like it was a genuine achievement to complete it, Mikami manages time and time again to achieve the same effect with just a boss fight. Characters like The Keeper and Laura are now indelibly scarred on my gaming subconscious. These are not just generic ‘bullet-sponges’ that leave no mark on the player, the kind that can be found in so many games. Each encounter leaves the player quite literally gasping for breath and provide a master-class in psychological fear too. Mikami has no interest in creating an antagonist and sequence that doesn’t register and you get the sense he wants the player to, in the most twisted way imaginable, savour the experience of facing off against one of his creations. It’s why each encounter often takes place over an extended amount of time and features an almost unbearable amount of foreshadowing. The descent into the catacombs to face The Keeper is full of fleeting glimpses and shocking imagery of his work before any confrontation even takes place. What’s also so enjoyable is the chance to derive story and character elements from each of their, for want of a better word, lairs. Coupled with the game’s purposefully fractured narrative it allows an avenue for the player to piece together the mystery and add (rotting…) flesh to the characters.
Yet all this would amount to little if not combined with the kind of gameplay that, once it gets its claws in you, makes it impossible to put the controller down. There can be no other explanation as to why I keep returning to Mikami’s unique brand of nightmare. While so many horror games are dismissed so quickly when the horror is dialled up, we find that time-and-time again we’re addicted to the customisation of weapons; the character progression; and the sheer wealth of options in how to tackle each hellish scenario, that we can’t turn away. It’s simply too addictive. Nowhere else is this addictiveness better displayed than with one of the game’s outright triumphs: the lowly save room. As the game progresses and you gather more and more keys to the dilapidated morgue’s freezer doors (making accessible weapons and upgrades), the desire and need to continually improve Sebastian’s abilities is a potent drug that keeps you returning to the game and is a genius touch – you are literally unlocking your character’s potential. The sense of satisfaction you get when finally turning the tables on the same creatures that have tormented you is one that few, other than Mikami, know how to pull off and it’s why I’ve been coming back to his games ever since that first fateful trip to the suspicious looking mansion in the mountains.
Oh, and make sure to take a closer look at the family picture in the save room. Trust me…
1. THE WOLF AMONG US
Telltale have rewritten the book as of late when it comes to story-driven adventures and their follow-up to phenomenally successful opening season of ‘The Walking Dead’ cemented them as one the industry’s leaders in narrative entertainment. Always featuring a wealth of endearing, flawed and, most importantly, human characters – regardless if they’re an eleven year old girl surviving against the undead or the Big Bad Wolf from fairytales now living in eighties New York. Basing itself on the series of comics from Bill Willingham – where the characters of fairy tales have been exiled from their reality and forced to live in ours – Telltale have once again been able to craft a compelling story across multiple episodes that keeps the player enthralled and entertained all the way to its thrilling conclusion.
Utilizing the same cel-shaded graphics as in ‘The Walking Dead’, yet somehow imbueing ‘Wolf’ with an aesthetic all its own, the game casts you as Bigby – the Big Bad Wolf from legend – as the local sheriff of the Fabletown, on the hunt of a ruthless serial killer. Where every line of dialogue has reprecussions and every action has consequence, Telltale once again let you be the creator of your own narrative. Will you see Bigby give in to his bloody past and, quite literally, tear his way to the truth at the expense of all those around him? Or will you see him become a leader and protector of the people of Fabletown? Whatever choice you make will see Bigby become a truly compelling protagonist.
For anyone that’s already sampled Telltale’s brand of entertainment then you already have a clear idea of how ‘Wolf’ operates. Give or take an extra addition to the interactivity of the combat sequences it plays out in much the same way as ‘The Walking Dead’ but is wrapped around the central core of a murder mystery. Where every bit of information is a potential clue and every character a potential suspect – Telltale are fast becoming the masters of episodic entertainment and structure their season like pros. With very deliberate pacing for each of the episodes so as to suck you in to the world before leaving you reeling, time-and-time again, with cliffhangers that shock and stun in equal measure. It’s one of the few experiences where you genuinely feel that, if offered the chance, people would think nothing of playing through the entire season in one sitting.
In a game like this story is king. If Telltale had failed to deliver on this aspect of the game then the whole experience would have fallen apart. Yet once again they fashion a story that gets its claws into you and doesn’t let go. With every secret that is reveiled you are sucked further and further into the murky world of lies and deceit. Yet this is no interactive storybook. Aspects of the game truly ask for the player’s focus (in sharp contrast to anyone says that these games are barely interactive) as in one excellent moment when you are asked to find the contradictions in a character’s statement based on the environmental evidence seen in their appartment after a suspicious looking altercation. It’s an immensely satisfying feeling to know you are solving a mystery with your nothing but your wits and ‘Wolf’ provides that feeling in spades.
You know I think I can even pinpoint the exact moment when I fell in love with ‘The Wolf Among Us’. It was the moment the opening title sequence played on the screen and I was greeted with the most awesome synth track theme tune since the glory days of John Carpenter. For any game to evoke the warm fuzzy feelings I have for one of my favourite directors virtually guarantees it a special place in my heart. Not only that, but combining a classic Carpenter-vibe with a superb and engrossing murder mystery – one of my favorite kinds of mystery – has resulted in something else: my game of the year.